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Europe fights for relevance in the age of AI

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Europe fights for relevance in the age of AI

This concentration of power is uncomfortable for European governments. It turns European companies into customers of the future, importing the latest services and technology in exchange for money and data sent westwards across the Atlantic. And these concerns have taken on a new urgency, in part because some in Brussels perceive a growing gap in values ​​and beliefs between Silicon Valley and the average EU citizen and their elected representatives; and partly because AI occupies a prominent place in the collective imagination as the engine of the next technological revolution.

European fears of being left behind in AI predate ChatGPT. In 2018, the European Commission issued an AI plan calling for an “AI made in Europe” that can compete with the United States and China. But beyond the desire for some kind of control over the shape of the technology, the operational definition of AI sovereignty has become quite confusing. “For some people, it means that we must act together to fight Big Tech,” says Daniel Mügge, a professor of political arithmetic at the University of Amsterdam, who studies technology policy in the EU. “For others, it means there’s nothing wrong with big tech as long as it’s European, so let’s get down to business and make it happen.”

Those competing priorities have begun to complicate EU regulation. The bloc’s AI Law, approved by the European Parliament in March and will likely become law this summer, focuses primarily on regulating potential harms and privacy concerns around the technology. However, some member states, notably France, made clear during negotiations over the law that they fear the regulation could put shackles on their AI startups, which they hope will become European alternatives to OpenAI.

Speaking ahead of the UK summit on AI safety held last November, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire saying that Europe needed to “innovate before regulating” and that the continent needed “European actors who master AI.” The final text of the AI ​​Law includes a commitment to make the EU “a leader in the adoption of trustworthy AI.”

“The Italians, the Germans and the French thought at the last minute: ‘Well, we have to give the European companies a little slack on the basic models,’” says Mügge. “That is wrapped up in the idea that Europe needs European AI. Since then I feel like people have realized that this is a little more difficult than they would like.”

Sarlin, who recently toured European capitals and met with authorities in Brussels, says Europe does have some of the elements it needs to compete. To participate in AI, you have to have data, computing power, talent and capital, he says.

The data is quite available, Sarlin adds, and Europe has AI talent, although it sometimes struggles to retain it.

To achieve more computing power, the EU is investing in high-performance computing resources, building a pan-European network of high-performance computing facilities and offering startups access to supercomputers through its “AI factories” initiative.

Accessing the capital needed to build large AI projects and companies is also a challenge, with a large chasm between the United States and everyone else. According to Stanford University AI Index ReportPrivate investment in American AI companies exceeded $67 billion in 2023, more than 35 times the amount invested in Germany or France. Accel Partners Research shows that in 2023, the seven largest private investment rounds from US generative AI companies amounted to $14 billion. The top seven in Europe totaled less than $1 billion.

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